The Platypus Synthesis: Discussion
Transcript of the plenary presentations and discussion at the 1st annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, Chicago, June 12–14, 2009. (Audio recording.)
Audience Q & A
Question 1 (Laurie Rojas): Ian just spoke about membership, and I wanted to expand on that, but, mostly to Chris and Richard, who have given very different, less concrete, presentations, now that Ian has raised the issue of membership, how is the membership to understand what the two of you just presented?
Richard Rubin: I think that they are rather separate issues. There are a lot of different models we could have for membership, or organizational models. I don’t think that that’s particularly necessarily connected to our ideological project. We don’t really know clearly what Platypus is. We don’t think of Platypus as a political party, but it is some kind of an organization. We have a newspaper, which is in some ways an organ for our organization, but it is not intended to be a “party” newspaper. In fact, the biggest problem we’ve had, is that we want more “external” content, representing non-Platypus views, against which Platypus can rebound.
I think that the membership question is a separate practical, instrumental question, and I don’t have clear views on what should be done on that. On this I’m probably of a minority in the organization, but it’s unclear to me that membership, while it’s a practical necessity for Platypus, is so central to the project. Since we’re interested in creating a milieu, we don’t necessarily need a large membership. Members are really the people who do the work. And while that is obviously a very important practical necessity, what we really want is a broad milieu, of people who will listen to and think about these ideas. Not necessarily those who agree, but pay attention to the ideas.
Ian Morrison: I was looking back at certain historical contexts for some kind of precedent, organizationally. There is an interesting example that, at one point, the group around Shachtman wanted very much to orient towards youth, to help sap out Stalinism in America. That failed. But we’re in a similar situation. We want to sap out bad pedagogy on the Left, and we can only do that starting in the university culture.
Chris Cutrone: I’d like to elaborate on that, the phrase “bad pedagogy.” We don’t consider the sectarian Left to be truly political. In other words, we don’t consider groups like the Spartacists, or the ISO, or the RCP, et al., to be really political organizations. Rather, we consider them to be bad pedagogues. . . .
IM: The idea that they’re “political” is bad pedagogy!
CC: . . . Right! There are two elements to the pedagogy. One, that’s more direct, meaning, the vulgarization of ideas. The other, though, is more indirect, which, we would also like to participate in, although our politics in this respect would be “liberal.” Meaning, that we give, what we’re trying to offer, and not just to our members, or even through membership in the organization, but really, what we’re trying to do through things like the paper and the fora, our events, the conversation we’re trying to host, is give a pedagogy not only of ideas, but of political practice. We’re thrown back onto an Enlightenment model of “philosophical debate.” Meaning, we’re back to the realm of teaching people that ideas matter, and that, in a sense, the polity can be constituted at the level of ideas.
So in that sense the bad pedagogy is both ways. There’s the purveying of bad ideology, but there’s also the purveying of a bad model of politics.
IM: Sometimes I think we might get a bad rap, which is difficult, about, we have an attack on activist culture. One thing about “theory,” and the “what is to be done?” question, is that we very much want to hit the brakes, we want to stop people, before they act, to think. And that is damaging to activism, on one level. If you think of activism as not intimately bound with theory, if you take activism as an ideology of, that people only learn to understand the world in a way that is “born of struggle,” in a way that is not linked to reflecting on that struggle, that you can only struggle, and then reflect, or so forth, this idea is very problematic.
RR: I want to make two practical points. One is that the fact that Platypus Review exists is to some extent an accident. Because the original goal of Platypus, before it really became a group, was to set up some kind of an academic journal. So we never, paradoxically, were able to that, but we were able to produce a newspaper, of a certain kind of academic tone.
The other is that, the fact that Platypus focuses on certain things and not other things is not necessarily an indication of our goal. I mean, there are a lot more things that, if we had a broader membership, we could do. A lot of people have interest in certain areas that, if we were a bigger organization, we would focus on doing. There are people in Platypus who do things like labor organizing, and so forth. So it’s not that we’re opposed to any type of concrete political activity. And there were people, and it’s a very mixed and complex question, there were a lot of people in Platypus who were active in SDS.
CC: I want to put a finer point on Ian’s point about “activism.” I think that what’s being referred to there is protest culture, which is different. What Christian Parenti, Doug Henwood and Liza Featherstone called “activistism,” or what Adorno called “actionism.” From the 1960s to the present, a lot of political “activism” is, actually, (a) not political, and (b) not really an “action,” not really actual action. Going to a protest, going to a demonstration, is not organizing workers. Those are two completely different actions. The fact that we can think of both of them as “actions” is itself a problem. So, it’s not that we are trying to interrupt “action,” it’s that we’re trying to interrupt “activistism,” which is a different kind of thing. We’re trying to interrupt the protest culture.
I think that part of the origins of Platypus comes from, both among the younger and older generation in the group, the feeling that, we would go to demonstrations, we would go to protests, we would go to anti-war protests, and we would feel like we were suspending disbelief while attending the demonstration. We wanted to be there, we wanted our feet on the ground, register our protest, our heart was in the right place. But we felt like we had to suspend our own thinking in order to participate. Because the slogans, because the conventionality of the event, what people seemed to tacitly agree upon, was something that we had, in a sense, to suspend disbelief about, because we found it inadequate. And what we found was that, and this was a strange phenomenon, probably most people at these demonstrations feel the same way. In which case, that begs the question.
So, in that respect, it should not be seen as theory as opposed to practice. Rather, we have our own theory-practice problem. And we relate that to the typical bad Left’s botching of the theory-practice problem. They have their way of dealing with the theory-practice problem, and we have our way of dealing with the theory-practice problem, and they’re not antithetically opposed. What they are is related. We’re trying to make up for a deficit. We don’t expect “activist-ism” to go away, but we do want to interrupt it. We do want to add something that’s a missing element at this point.
IM: Actually, our paper is very much inspired by the problem of protest culture. I’m sure everyone has had the experience who went to protests of getting a plethora of crazy newspapers that one couldn’t make any sense of, really, with all different variations on workerism, really. And that’s a very odd sort of experience, that young people have no way of even decoding, this kind of strange language that’s been passed down. That was at least my experience, during the Iraq war, going to protests, and taking all these different sorts of views, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of any of them, really. And I think that’s most people’s experience. What’s sad about that is that I think people are actually very interested in those ideas, but have no real access to where such positions come from, what the motivation is, because it is a position-taking that’s very incoherent in our time. That’s one of the reasons why we emphasize more, when we read the classical texts in Marxism, what is the general impetus behind these writers, and not these “classic” disputes, like the “Lenin-Luxemburg dispute” or so forth, that are sometimes very obscuring of what it is they actually agreed about.
So, in a way, anyone who’s interested in making a “decoder” for this world is a writer for our paper. It’s about reflecting on that kind of experience, that is very common for people in their university life, if they go to protests.
CC: There are two things about that that are important. One is that the sectarian Left is there, and there is this kind of museumified Marxism that gets trotted out. As well as there’s academic Leftism. Meaning, you read Foucault, and you’re supposed to understand what Foucault is in dialogue with. It’s just this tacit understanding that there’s this critique of Marxism going on here. But it’s all underspecified. What we’re trying to do is essentially reconstitute the debate that’s taken for granted, and that doesn’t occur. Meaning, you go to a protest and you get several different groups’ sectarian newspapers. You make sense of them yourself. And, really, these groups don’t speak to each other. The reason that they don’t speak to each other is that they really don’t “speak,” to begin with, right?
The point is that we are trying, in a sense, to make the “dead” speak, by putting them in dialogue with one another. And our own contribution to that is, simply, why we think that needs to happen. All of these groups basically pretend these other groups don’t exist, and wish the other groups would just go away. But in so doing they’ve abdicated on politics. They’ve abdicated on the actual controversies, in favor of some kind of brute sectarian schisms. I think that, again, our model is the something like, the kind of conversation on the Left that supposedly is always “going on,” but somehow never takes place. We’re actually trying to make that happen.
Q2 (Gabe Gaster): I could sort of formulate my response as a question. In response to what Ian was saying, about squashing the “bad pedagogy” at universities . . .
CC: “Draining the swamp.”
GG: . . . “Draining the swamp,” right. I would say that’s almost like ceding too much ground, maybe. Aren’t we challenging them to be better, to articulate, challenging them to speak to one another? That’s a point that you arrived at. But I would say that we are maybe ceding too much ground to this idea that we are just “squashing them.” The point is that we are challenging them to be better activists, to articulate their thoughts, so that one can make head or tail of their political context that they exist in. And, also, what happened to the “journal of letters?”
CC: I want to say something about the journal, because it was raised. The journal project is still in the offing. It’s not that the Platypus Review has replaced the journal project. Also, the journal project is not meant to be an academic journal. It’s meant to replace the New Left Review. And destroy that milieu. The whole apparatus. And related publications. There are other versions of this, such as Historical Materialism. Especially in the Anglophone world, where we aim to, in a sense, provide a different context. It would not be either an academic journal, nor would it be “Platypus.” But, rather, a place where existing Left intellectuals would be prompted to write, think, in ways that they are not now prompted to do. And that project continues. It just takes a while to start such a journal, and it also involves establishing relationships with people, which we are also doing, through our public fora, and whatnot. Inviting people to speak on panels, to engage these debates, to fertilize their thinking in such events, is a way of demonstrating that an audience for the kind of journal we want to start could exist. Because, right now, the existing intellectual Left essentially assumes that such an audience can’t exist, and that’s why you get the antics of a Zizek. There’s a notion that there’s no audience for this, anyway.
IM: Let me clarify something. The “draining the swamp” idea is different than “smashing” the dead Left, as if with a hammer. It’s more the idea that there are people trapped in this swamp, who are going to be fossilized very soon, as they’re falling down, waving to each other. We want to drain that morass, so that people could talk to each other. So that when we have our public events, we always invite, usually, someone from a “sectarian Left group,” if that’s the term to be used, a student who does some kind activism, one of us, and maybe a Left academic. That’s usually the format, every time. And our experience has been that in the context we create these people are able to be much better than they are in their books, or in the New Left Review, or so forth, by the very context of conversation we’re making, and that they very much feel is impossible. So that’s the idea. I think, it’s not about smashing other groups, or anything like that, at all. It’s about people who give each other the silent treatment. In What is to be done?, of course, there is a discussion about “freedom of criticism,” the way people will use the idea of “freedom of criticism” to stifle criticism, this kind of psychology. Because that book is all about opening up a conversation that Lenin didn’t think would happen in the 2nd International, basically. We want to make a conversation that, even though they carry on, don’t think is possible at all.
RR: I wanted to respond to two points. One is the point about people not talking, and pretending nobody else existed. The first thing that actually attracted me to the Spartacist League was not their manifest politics, some of which repelled me, initially, but rather the fact that they had all these esoteric polemics against bizarre other little groups. I found that very attractive, because it meant that they were the only group on the Left paying attention to other groups on the Left. And that was very interesting to me. The other thing that attracted me was that you get their bound back issues, all their bound issues, which I now own, though they are in storage, from the ’60s to the early ’90s. Reading them was a great education in the history of the sectarian Left. It gave you, despite whatever problems one might have with the specific criticisms or positions, there wasn’t anything comparable where one could get such information. It was very hard to get that type of information.
The other point I wanted to go to was this metaphor of “draining the swamp.” And here I’m going to be a bit of a devil’s advocate. The first thing that came up to mind with that image, was that there’s a place in the Galilee, Northern Israel, or Palestine, if you prefer, where there are the Hula Swamps. It was one of the early heroic stories of Zionist pioneers, that they drained these swamps. They were very successful in draining the swamps. But it ended up causing huge ecological disaster. So what is the point of this metaphor? Because they did drain the swamps and build agriculture, but it turned out the swamps were very important for the ecology of the region, and so forth. And they hadn’t realized that when they did that. So the point of this is that we actually have a parasitic relationship to both the sectarian Left and the academic Left. (IM And activism!) While I am constantly filled (I put that image of the Rapture in there, which is obviously not going to happen) with annoyance at the sectarian Left, the prospect of it literally disappearing is actually frightening to me. And I think it is questionable whether we in Platypus could actually carry on in a world where certain symptoms of the dead Left completely disappeared. I mean, that may seem like a contradictory message, but it’s something we have to think about. And I think that there’s a way in which the content of academic Leftism has itself deteriorated as external, sectarian Leftism has started to dry up. And that’s not a problem that in the long run we would be immune to.
IM: There’s also the idea of the “revolving door,” sort of a different image. My feeling, usually, is that a lot of people who get involved in the sorts of groups that we’re talking about, it’s very much a two- or three-year project for them. And their experience is, extremely, one of disillusionment.
I was talking to somebody at a party not that long ago about their experience in one of these front groups. And they were extremely fascinated by Marxism, and had read everything that they could get their hands on. But they were kind of shocked by the way that, they thought, that, because they were not addressed up-front, with all the theory of Marxism, when they got involved in this group, that they really had the sense that, even though the group was “Marxist” in some sense, that they didn’t believe that they could appeal to people with the content of their own ideas. And that was a very depressing way to come to Marxism and the Left. And so they’ll wander off, and do this or that activist thing, until it peters out, when there’s no war going on, and so forth.
Q3 (Troy Pasulka): I wanted to divide it into two parts. I think the first one is that, as Platypus is a “talking shop,” more than that, also, and it wants to be more than that. How to improve the “talking shop?” I just want to bring up two things on how to improve the “talking shop.” One, I think a focus on destroying the New Left Review and critiquing all these Left groups, as someone said on Friday, should be situated within a broader aim of transforming capitalism, socialism, learning from the history of the Left in order to fix the problems. Second, I think a better understanding of US imperialism should be fostered within this “talking shop.” It was said in the panel, “American imperialism is no longer fighting Leftists, it’s fighting reactionary Islam . . .”
TP: Okay, predominately, right. Certainly not solely. If you look at many places around the world, it’s certainly not fighting reactionary Islam. Even in the Arabic world, it’s not fighting solely reactionary Islam, it’s fighting Baathists, who are secular, it’s fighting Communists, it’s fighting the oil workers’ union, it’s fighting a lot of people. The second thing I wanted to say, in addition to the talking shop, what I think we need to change the world. I think we need to build a revolutionary organization that’s going to put into practice all of this theory. And what type? The type like the Spartacists, who focus on attacking other Left groups? I don’t think that’s the type. I think we need the type that’s going to the people who are open to propaganda, and getting involved in stuff. Ian, you were saying there’s no one open to propagandize to, and that’s simply not true. I talk to people all the time who are interested. Like you said, there’s all kinds of people who are into these ideas, very interested in moving forward, and not at all interested in focusing on the New Left Review, and how they suck, and how all these other Left groups suck. No, they want to progress. For example, I agree Obamaism isn’t great, but labeling everyone who is for Obama “reactionary,” no. There’s some progress, there’s some open people there. I agree, going to a protest is not all that’s political to do, but it’s not not organizing workers, because workers go to protests. You can go to a protest, and you can critique it, or you can go to a protest, and you can organize. And just one more clarification, I’m in the ISO (International Socialist Organization), so it’s wrong to say that nobody on the Left talks to anyone else. I’m here. I’ve been talking to a guy who is in the FRSO [Freedom Road Socialist Organization]. So I just wanted to point that out.
RR: I’ll respond briefly. The ISO and the Spartacist League. The Spartacist League publish all kinds of attacks and polemics against the ISO, which I would probably be largely in agreement with, but I’ve never read any polemics by the ISO against the Spartacist League in the paper. There is an asymmetry in the way the two organizations conceive of their roles as revolutionary Marxist parties. I think the Spartacist League is clearly the exception, and the ISO, in that respect, is the norm on the Left. That is not to necessarily make the Spartacist League a model, but it certainly makes them more interesting to me than the norm. We obviously are of a different sensibility.
With regard to American imperialism, really, the question isn’t understanding American imperialism, because that’s not the issue. The question is: what does it say about the world that the greatest challenge to American imperialism is not coming from Leftist insurgents? It’s coming from Islamist reactionaries. That says something about historical regression. To get to the fundamental issue, which is the absence of the Left in that constellation. You mentioned the Arab world — look at Palestine today, which is a case I know fairly well. If you look at Palestinian politics in the ‘70s, you would have seen a lot of Leftist nationalist groups, many claiming to be Marxist. Now, whatever one’s critique of them, clearly those groups have disappeared. The dominant political force in opposing Israel is Islamist, is Hamas. There is no way of getting around that. That’s true throughout the Middle East, that’s true throughout the world. Even in the cases where there are Leftist political movements, like in Latin America, they are tame versions compared to the ‘70s or ‘80s. Not that the ‘70s or ‘80s were any better, I’m not trying to foster that, but it’s obvious there’s been a massive transformation in the world, and it’s a transformation toward the Right. It’s the non-acknowledgement of that fact that is significant, not the “understanding of American imperialism.” It’s not American imperialism that has changed, it’s the Left, it is the collapse of an opposition to it from a Leftist direction. There are people who are opposing American imperialism for all sorts of reasons, but they are reactionary reasons. If you want to talk about American imperialism fostering reaction, one of the things few people on the Left would say is that if the Soviet Union had won in Afghanistan, 9/11 would not have happened. People on the Left won’t say it, people on the right won’t say it, and it’s clear. It’s clear that one of the ultimate causes of 9/11 was the policy of the United States government that directly funneled money to the Islamist reactionaries who were fighting the Red Army. That’s a context where the Left doesn’t acknowledge its own history. Overwhelmingly, the American Left, including the supposed far Left, were supporting the Mujahideen. I think the model of building the Left in the way you are talking about it already entails a concession to a bad history.
IM: I was recently at an event where a representative from the trade unions in Iraq was at, and they were talking about a conference they had in Arbil, and there were almost no Left groups there, for reasons one could explore. But something I found almost shocking was that their conference, which was an attempt to unite the various unions in their country, which do non-violent work, which are anti-religious, which are anti-sectarian, which have women’s rights groups and so forth, all sorts of interesting demands, their conference would not have happened without a group called U.S. Labor Against the War. Even though the labor movement is extremely small in America, the Left in other countries is dependent on. Lenin used the word tailism in supporting another group in this or that part of the world — you should be more conscious in the absence of a Left in America is extremely detrimental to Left groups abroad. It’s a burden we have, and I think the typical anti-imperialist rhetoric really confuses this burden that we have. And so it is a question of theory, it’s a question of a certain kind of conversation that would have to start for anyone to begin to think of the sort of complicated practical issues that would be involved, and that we might not have answers to.
CC: Let me say something about propagandism. The Spartacist League call themselves a “fighting propaganda group.” I’m not sure what the history of that term is, I think it might have a deeper history. The self understanding of a group like the ISO might be something like that: it’s not a political party, it’s a propaganda group, trying to get ideas out there, intersecting people in their political activities, at the level of ideas. That’s where we get back to the bad pedagogy. Getting back to “draining the swamp” and “the revolving door syndrome,” my experience now that I am faculty and not a student, and I spent a number of years tuning out the Left, although Richard kept me informed. The experience was that not only do you get a bad education of Marxism by groups like the ISO, the Spartacist League, the RCP idea that you brawl with the police and that’s how you make people revolutionary, and others, that’s depoliticizing in another way. In other words, not only do you get a bad education of what Marxism is about, you get a bad education of what politics is about. You spend a few years — young people who are idealistic in these organizations — and you quit. They quit and become politically cynical. They quit and hold their nose and vote for Democrats. That’s what happens, in 99% of cases. It’s only the true nutjobs that say in those groups. In other words, it self-selects for bad human material.
So then, what do you do? What happens to people when their initial experience with Marxism is one of crude ideas and futile activity? The reason we say we are not trying to do propaganda is precisely because the model of propaganda refers to a historical period in which people were more active politically, in which society was more politicized, in which the working class was more organized, in which the Left was more self-consciously and principally more organized. Ian talked about going to a protest and getting all sorts of newspapers. Well, that’s one thing. In the 1930s, people would have been literally yelling at each other. You would have gone to Greenwich Village or Washington Square Park, and people would have been literally haranguing each other, respectfully, maybe sometimes beating each other but not always. But there was a sense of politics through ideas in a way that is severely lacking now. So it’s not that propaganda is sort of a bad model, it’s misplaced right now in comparison to what it used to be. Our attitudes towards groups on the sectarian Left is that they are doing what they have always done outside of the context where that ever made sense. In other words, doing it in the ‘60s wasn’t also doing it in the ‘30s; doing it in the ‘30s didn’t work, first of all. Carrying it out in the ‘60s and continuing it today is a surreal, what we call “zombie” practice, no matter what it appears to be. So why don’t we do propaganda? Because the propaganda is bad, and because that model of activity is without a context. I would say in terms of “draining the swamp” and stopping the revolving door, we would like to prevent people in college from having their first experience with Marxist ideas to be with the sectarian Left or with the bad faith, ex-New Left academic Leftists. We desire to put a stop to that, absolutely. Now what Richard is saying is true too, meaning you can’t bring that to an absolute halt, but you can transform it. In other words, what Richard is saying is, okay, if they all disappeared in the rapture, it would be a terrible context. We’re for nudging things along, for clearing out the cobwebs, and for waking up the zombies, whatever metaphor you want to use. As Ian said earlier, about the house of cards character, meaning that one of the reasons groups don’t like to deal with us is that they detect if they engage in this kind of conversation, their whole thing might fall apart. And it will fall apart.
Q4 (Ashley Weger): I want to thank you for this panel. Chris, you kind of talked about, not in these terms, about relearning and redefining our relationship to the past, and I think that requires a certain amount of unlearning, particularly, I can say, from personal experience. This is at the core of my incapacity to answer a question posed to me by Richard about my relationship to history, because it is requiring so much unlearning on my part, to be able to engage in that kind of conversation. From a very practical level, how do you see Platypus facilitating this starting over process for folks, or when you are starting from scratch? Because to be quite honest, and I think this is an appropriate critique of Platypus, you seem esoteric to a lot of people, because they either A. haven’t had experience with your perspective on Marxist ideas, or B. they have been affiliated with folks from whom they need to do a lot of unlearning. So how do you see this being facilitated? Because, although I think the reading group is a good way to do that, if you are coming to Marxism late, that is a hard conversation to start having. How do you bring in a crowd of people like myself, who are maybe a bit politically immature, but craving this sort of conversation?
CC: Ian was talking about the importance of the reading group of people who are participants as members in the organization. But reading group is not the be all, end all of the group by any means. Really, the best initial exposure we can provide to people doesn’t come through reading groups or even something like this talk we are giving today, or the talk we gave Friday night. What we are really trying to do at the level of relearning, rethinking, changing the relationship to the past is what we are trying to do through the fora and the newspaper. That’s where the majority of voices will not be from this organization. In other words, on the forum panel, there will be four persons, and maybe one person from Platypus, but the person from Platypus will be there mostly to piss people off, to shake people out of their complacency. That has sort of been my role, and that’s what I have been doing. So the initial exposure is not to our ideas, but to the conversation, which is also meant to be productive for us — we have no theory. We are about remembering theory, we don’t have a theory, it’s not that kind of pedagogy. It’s more the pedagogy of the conversation, making that happen. That’s how we hope people will re-find a relationship to the past, not through what we have to say, but through what we try to get other people to say.
RR: My response to the question of us seeming esoteric — the problem is not that we seem esoteric, the problem is that we are more esoteric than we even seem. That’s the real problem. The problem of us seeming esoteric, I think, is more a problem of people’s anxieties about the parts that are not that esoteric. A lot of people avoid us not to the extent that they don’t understand us, but to the extent that they do. But the real problem is, we are much more esoteric than we seem, and that’s the problem at the deepest level.
CC: There’s a flip side to that though.
RR: Yes, there’s a flip side to that. With regard to the question of unlearning, which is a problem I have thought about a lot, because, as I said, I did not come to Platypus as some 18 year-old or 19 year-old in a class with Chris Cutrone. On the contrary, coming to Platypus essentially alongside Chris, was a process of massive unlearning, and is still a process of unlearning, and is something I have deep resistance to. There are many aspects of Platypus I inwardly resist, and I’m constantly challenging myself. I have gone through several stages in my political thinking which involved considerable unlearning. Before I went to college, I had sort of a New Left, Chomskyite perspective, unspecified, which had kind of grown organically out of the default liberalism of my family. Then I encountered the Spartacist League, adopted not literally, but essentially, the Spartacist perspective, which then in turn, was again, to a certain extent, unlearned to adopt a Platypus perspective. I’m not really sure, at the end, what that has left me with. I’m saying that, because it’s important to understand that’s what’s at the core of the project, particularly among the people who started the project. To the extent that some people may be able to start with Platypus and see the Left from Platypus’ lenses, I have much more difficulty understanding those people than the people who resist Platypus. I mean, I’m glad that they exist, but I find it difficult to see how anybody could see the world, or the Left, rather, starting out with Platypus. It’s kind of astonishing to me.
Q5: I was wondering if you could speak to how important it is for your project to have a viable, Marxist understanding of the present in general. To look at consciousness within the working class, and different trends and tendencies among workers. If you think that’s important, how would you propose reading that, or writing about that? Because obviously, groups on the Left might not represent that the best. So what milieus could people use?
IM: I’ll try to answer that question in a couple of different ways. One think I would point to is a certain ‘60s view of the world, of the idea of students as a class, is one thing I think we unconsciously keep. People who go to school for higher education is a much, much broader group of people than it was in the past. But also, we’ve done events with labor organizers. We’re very interested in exploring those sorts of politics, and the ways universities can recept them. It came up last night — students serve as cannon fodder for a lot of these labor groups, do a lot of organizing with them without thinking. The university and its kind of culture intersect a much wider purvey of society than I think people think. There really is something confusing about politics when people raise this abstract of the working class, and it’s a part of the ‘30s propaganda politics. I think our real disagreement is with not wanting to be a propaganda organization, because we want to foster a certain kind of conversation. I mean, obviously, anyone can come to our reading groups, anyone can come to our public events: they are open to the public, we publicize them in all sorts of places, they are not exclusive to any kind of group or person or so forth, so I guess I would just question the sort of stereotypes of this abstract working class that is often referred to.
CC: At the same time, I would modulate that a little bit. I think that, first of all, because we do do these events, we have established relationships with people, from our fields, from the sectarian Left, as well as further fields of the academic Left. And those relationships are vital. Meaning, the labor organizers we deal with and those milieus we intersect both inform our own thinking about things as well as provide different kind of audiences. The newspaper is not only distributed on campuses but also at union halls, where we have existing relationships with people. It’s a little bit of a shot in the dark to expose unionists and “regular” working class people to the kind of esoteric conversation going on on the Left. But frankly, it’s only a variation of the discourse you find in places like The Nation, which of course, working class people read those kinds of publications. It’s not extrinsic to it or foreign to it. It does matter to us, but I think we have accepted, more or less, that we can only have an indirect relationship to it.
IM: I think if we could have a stronger pedagogical relationship to a larger sect of society, we would. I think now we are interested practically in what the fetters are on such a practice, and don’t think the propaganda model (hanging outside the factory with your paper) is an especially effective one. Unions in the past — the Port Huron Statement, as an example, Port Huron is a sort of retreat for the UAW. They sponsored that conference. Now, unions are much smaller, so they use their budgets differently.
I think people get confused about the Left, because it’s so small today, that one group is supposed to be the Jack-of-all-Trades for this new Left we don’t have. There really is a division of labor. We’re not going to preach the tactics of union politics — that would be ridiculous of us. But if there was a real medium where one could make ideas more broadly accessible, we’d be interested in that.
Q6: I haven’t been thoroughly convinced that the Left is totally dead, but I think the argument has been established that if it isn’t dead, it’s pretty close to it. I’ve been around for a while. For whatever reason the Left has become what it is, it’s a fact. The other side of that is that bourgeois ideology is not only pervasive, but it’s corrosive. I think that’s part of the reason you see part of the Left moving right. My question is — I have been very pleasantly surprised by this convention — but how do you account, objectively and somewhat concisely, how you have resisted this extremely corrosive bourgeois ideology?
IM: Maybe. First off, our whole slogan “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!” is not propaganda — it’s a provocation. When we go to protests and we have that slogan, it’s not like a declaration.
CC: It’s supposed to make people think.
IM: That’s the idea. It’s supposed to almost be Dada-esque: What is that? What do you mean? I don’t get it. It’s not supposed to be, like, “Oh, yeah! The Left is dead.”
RR: I am going to respond in two parts. One is that it’s not just that bourgeois ideology is so pervasive, because bourgeois ideology has always been so pervasive, the problem is that the bourgeois ideology is so crass. In a sense, the bourgeois ideology is corrosive to itself, corrosive on both sides. And, as you’ve said, that also effects the Left. As for the question of resisting bourgeois ideology, I wouldn’t put it that way. Chris and I come from radically different class backgrounds — Chris comes from a working class background, I come from a bourgeois background. I don’t think that obviously different personal background had much impact on our political development. The curious thing, and it’s something I have in common with Chris that I have never quite been able to explain, is that the most radicalizing moment for me politically is what is usually seen as a huge defeat, a catastrophe of the Left, namely the collapse of Stalinism, 1989–92. Its collapse in the sense of the capitalist restoration of Eastern Europe after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The reason it was radicalizing, in the intellectual sense, was that it actually confirmed for me the validity of Trotsky’s basic analysis, which previously I had been strongly resistant to and doubted.
The irony is that a profoundly negative event in the analysis pushed me to a sense of its truth and value, which was a paradoxical relationship: to be pushed to the Left intellectually by an event that was pushing, fundamentally, the whole world to the right. It was partially that dual consciousness that made it impossible to quite literally accept Spartacism. I remember talking to an older comrade, who had been part of the original Trotskyist movement, who had been part of the Communist League of America, a founding member of the Socialist Worker’s Party, a member of that ‘30s generation, an organic, working-class intellectual, who remained faithful to those ideas until his death in the mid-90s. He was very puzzled by this — his radicalization was in the context of a massive working class movement, came from a Communist family background, it was the upsurge of the ‘30s. It is a paradoxical situation, and one that has left a not necessarily desirable intellectual mark on me. I remember thinking at the time, why is it that so few people made the intellectual connection that I have? Because I would have expected more people to be like me, but it turned out that people like me were few and far between. I don’t really know how to account for that — not completely unique, but rare.
CC: There is a metaphor that Richard and I have used in our prior conversation — that we are the mutants of 1989. Meaning in terms of Darwinian evolution, we’re the mutation rather than the predominate mode of life, but we find our niche nevertheless. Now I wouldn’t want to answer the question that way, though — I’d answer the question a little differently. What Richard’s raising is the idea of “via negativa” In other words, how can consciousness on the Left, born of defeat, can come negatively. In a sense, what Platypus shares is this kind of negative lesson, the negative lesson of the Left. The negative lesson of 1989, the negative lesson of the ‘90s Left, the negative lesson of the anti-war movement as ineffectual, with the Iraq War, this kind of “via negativa” has been important for us. And how we would explain resisting the degradation of consciousness that goes on on the Left, and effects all of society, because that’s what we think, the reason I think Richard wouldn’t say it’s about resisting bourgeois consciousness is that, in a sense, bourgeois consciousness is dialectical. Meaning, we conceive the Left to be a species of bourgeois consciousness. The difference is, that it is aware of itself in this way.
RR: Marxism is the highest form of bourgeois consciousness.
CC: Not in a class sense, but in a historical sense. That raises the issue of historical consciousness, of why we frame our own self-understanding for why a certain kind of conversation has to occur on the Left, why we find history to be indicting of the present or critical of the present. We think that consciousness and social reality can be out of sync with themselves. In other words, there can be a non-synchronous relationship between ideology and social reality, and that, therefore, we can say, how come when we started this project, the first thing we were immediately subjected to was the Lenin/Luxemburg debate. Not by people who had been alive in 1917, not by people who had been alive in the 1960s, but by young people! So these ideas obviously have some kind of strange purchase on people — the question is what do we do with that? Because in the present way these ideas have purchase on people, we might just wish them to go away. But they do have some kind of purchase for people — the question is, can that be a starting point?
In other words, people are still attracted to Marxism, young people still join the ISO. These little left sectarian groups still attract people, and the ‘60s generation in the academic Left continues to whip the dead horse of Marx. Every single class is, like, “This is why Marx is wrong,” and “Oh, by the way, this is why Marx is wrong.” Every class at University of Chicago has a “This is why Marx is wrong” moment in it, except, maybe, in the natural sciences. But any place else, “This is why Marx is wrong.” Although, even in the natural sciences, they might bring something up, like, “See? Darwin’s understanding of evolution is non-teleological! Therefore, Marx is wrong!” If that’s the case, if Marx has to be constantly exorcised, if Marxism has to be constantly exorcised, if Bolshevism is still this dirty word, what does that mean? Does that mean anything? What can we do with that? So ideology is a fairly complicated matter, and history has a place in its dynamic. That’s, in a sense, how we understand ourselves. That’s how we account for our ability to “resist,” even though it’s not really resistance at all, and Richard has already raised the danger that we might be just as symptomological as anything we take issue with. It’s a danger that we court, openly. In other words, we are weary of all the ways the Left usually denies that. Rather, we embrace that.
RR: There are weird symptoms in popular culture at a vulgar level that (extend to the quality of Marx). We see them in the economic crisis. There was a discussion on television and Paul Krugman was the Left voice. The question was something like, was capitalism finished? And he said something like, “I don’t think we have to become Red Guards.” It was this odd moment, because, of course, nobody was talking about capitalism being finished, that is so far from the agenda of the mainstream, but even raising the question, and raising the image of Marx entails it as central to dialogue. Because at the same time that the Left is dead, that doesn’t mean, oddly, that the image of Marx becomes dead. The image of Marx continues to haunt, whatever the actual Left or actual Marxists do. | P
Transcribed by Ashley Weger.